Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South

Seldom remembered today, Julius Rosenwald's achievements as businessman and benefactor ought to place him in the pantheon of American luminaries. As vice president/treasurer and then chief executive of Sears, Roebuck (the mail-order juggernaut that was the Amazon.com/Home Depot/WalMart of its day) in the first quarter of the 20th century, few American businessmen had a higher profile, and fewer still could match Rosenwald's passion for social change or his ability to harness the wealth of others to bring long-term philanthropic projects to fruition. Julius Rosenwald, by Peter Ascoli, Rosenwald's grandson, is an admirable accounting of the life of this remarkable man.

Born in 1862 to German Jewish immigrants, Rosenwald was raised a few blocks from the Springfield, Illinois, home of Abraham Lincoln in a solidly middle class household. A hard worker with a genius for retailing, by the time he became president of Sears, Roebuck, at the age of 33, he was already a millionaire. His meteoric rise in business mirrored the role that philanthropy played in his life. Early in his adult life he decided that he would give as much as a third of his income to charity, even when the amounts involved were fairly small. By the time of his death in 1932, he had more than lived up to his pledge, having contributed more than $60 million (roughly $770 million in today's dollars) to various philanthropic causes.

In his time, Rosenwald was friend and confidant to a Who's Whoof American industrial and political figures; despite his being Jewish, his success in business success gave him access to America's WASP establishment, and his fervent Progressivism and belief in the ability of individuals and government to work in concert to transform society earned him the respect of social reformers across the country. His friendship with the social-work pioneer Jane Addams led Rosenwald to help fund the fledgling Hull House in Chicago and, some years later, to establish the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Rosenwald himself was deeply influenced in his beliefs by Rabbi Emil Hirsch, the principal architect of Reform Judaism in America, whose teachings led Rosenwald to become a lifelong adherent of the doctrine of social justice, which held that charity is not voluntary but rather the obligation of the well-off. Over the years, Rosenwald, a founder of the American Jewish Committee, made frequent contributions to Jewish causes — perhaps none more farsighted than his $1 million challenge grant in 1917 to aid East European Jews dislocated by the violence of World War I.

Of all Rosenwald's relationships, however, few would have as much impact as his friendship with Paul Sachs, a senior partner at Goldman Sachs, which had brought Sears, Roebuck public in 1906. Four years later, Sachs gave Rosenwald a copy of J.G. Brooks' An American Citizen, a biography of William Baldwin, the philanthropist and advocate for black education, along with a copy of Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery. The experience of reading these books was to profoundly alter Rosenwald's view of race in America as well as his ideas about how philanthropy could achieve its goals.

Until he actually met and befriended Booker T. Washington in 1911, Rosenwald was ambivalent about the cause of race relations in America and largely concerned himself with the assimilation of Jews into American society and the elimination of the social and professional barriers that kept Jews from fully participating in American life. After meeting Washington, however, he began to plan his most ambitious act of philanthropy: the building and outfitting of schools for African American children in the rural South. In the end, Rosenwald and the philanthropies he established to that end built more than five thousand schools (as well as libraries and housing for teachers) — schools that, by the 1950s and the first flowering of the civil rights movement, had been responsible for providing millions of Southern blacks with an education.

It's important to note that Rosenwald did not achieve all this alone. As with his challenge grant to the AJC, he believed that success in philanthropy, as in business, came from motivating others. Informed by his experience at Sears, Roebuck, where he was an enthusiastic practitioner of welfare capitalism, Rosenwald viewed philanthropy as a convergence of interests and communities. Though the schools he established in the South became known as "Rosenwald schools," neither the plan behind them nor the bulk of the funds that financed them were provided by Rosenwald himself. (The plan was the brainchild of Booker T. Washington and his successors at the Tuskegee Institute, while the majority of the funds eventually came from state and local government.)

As his personal fortune mushroomed in the post-World War I boom years, Rosenwald began looking for ways to systematize and institutionalize his philanthropy. He had been named, in 1917, to John D. Rockefeller's General Education Board, and soon after established the Julius Rosenwald Fund and the Sears, Roebuck Foundation (the first corporate foundation in America) to fund his philanthropic interests. Upon his retirement from Sears, Roebuck in 1924, Rosenwald dedicated the remaining years of his life to advancing the causes he had spent his life supporting.

In his long and productive life, Julius Rosenwald, like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, married financial success to philanthropy in bold and creative ways and, in so doing, inspired successive generations of American philanthropists. And yet, despite the business-like approach he brought to his giving, Rosenwald's philanthropic efforts were so closely bound up with his personal wealth that, at the time of his death, in the depths of the Depression, his estate was almost declared insolvent on account of the commitments he had made to various charitable organizations. In the end, the Rockefeller Foundation guaranteed most of those obligations, which in turn allowed the assets of the Rosenwald Family Association, largely consisting of Sears, Roebuck stock, to rebound along with the price of the stock.

Rosenwald himself was a critic of endowments, believing that philanthropists should work to create change in their lifetimes, rather than seek to anticipate or determine the priorities of a future they were ultimately incapable of imagining. To that end, he stipulated that the Rosenwald Family Association should spend itself out (the first American philanthropy to do so) within a fixed period of time after his death, which it did after distributing an additional $11 million (including a stipend to Ralph Ellison, who wrote Invisible Manon a Rosenwald Fellowship).

Filled with details of a bygone America, Ascoli's affectionate portrait of a great, if all-but-forgotten, man is a reminder of how much good a single individual with vision and the werewithal to make that vision a reality can achieve. One can only hope that, with the help of his grandson, Julius Rosenwald's life and memory will continue to inspire Americans for generations to come.

Daniel Matz
Web Services Associate
Foundation Center
New York, New York